10/28/2010 07:25 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Shadow Elite : Will the Real Juan Williams Please Stand Up?

Why does the saga of Juan Williams bring back memories of Eastern Europe after the fall of communism? Janine is a social anthropologist who studied the mechanisms of power there both before and after communism, and she recalls the officials she interviewed in communism's aftermath who gave her two, three, or even more cards bearing different job titles. These players were performing in a fast-changing environment where boundaries were collapsing, rules were being rewritten on the fly or circumvented entirely, and the edgy players who adapted to the new landscape with the most agility and creativity, who tried out novel ways of operating and got away with them, were most rewarded with influence.

The chaotic media environment of today is not unlike the one we just described. Williams, who, for a decade, successfully pulled off representing two vastly different, perhaps even antithetical, brands -- Fox and NPR -- certainly qualifies as agile and edgy. And he's hardly an anomaly: These days, the idea that a journalist would operate in a single venue with a single standard of conduct seems as dated as an 8-track tape.

The advent of the Internet and 24-hour cable news has encouraged journalists to engage with the public as never before. Since the floodgates of content have opened, they are encouraged to rise above the din with provocative statements and opinions, and also to market their own personal brand through social networking.

At the same time, the struggling traditional news organizations are slashing payrolls and paying far less (one of Linda's friends recently found out that her old producer job is paying $30,000 less than she made in 1999.) This is one reason many journalists seek and hold multiple affiliations -- a commentator contract, a publishing deal, a teaching position, corporate consulting, speaking engagements, think-tank fellowships. Which role is a journalist representing when he presents his work and whose interests are being served? The journalist might know, but the audience most definitely will not.

This practice of holding any number of titles and affiliations is hardly confined to media, as Janine explores in her book Shadow Elite. What she saw among the savvy operators in Eastern Europe, she began to see among power brokers in the West who would multiply their influence by performing overlapping and often not-fully-disclosed roles across business, government, media, think tanks and NGOs. With institutional loyalty declining and boundaries blurring, it is now easier than any time in our memory for individual players to press personal agendas that run counter to the public interest.

Consider former Senator Thomas Daschle. He was on the payroll of a prominent Washington law firm that recruited him to help create a health information technology unit charged with assisting clients in taking advantage of stimulus funds. (See the Huff Post Investigative Fund reporting here.) He also served as a think-tanker, lecture-circuiter, consultant to a private equity firm, as well as medical insurance and pharmaceutical companies and an adviser to the health care industry on new information technology applications. During the same time frame Daschle advised President Obama and congressional leaders on the same issue. On whose behalf was Daschle working in his meetings with the president and on Capitol Hill?

Or what about former Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff, who appeared ubiquitously in the media after the bombing attempt on Christmas 2009, pushing for full-body scanners as a cure-all for lax airport security. Only later did the viewing and reading public learn about his other title: that Chertoff serves as managing director of an eponymous consulting firm that represents the only company to have initially qualified for the government contract to manufacture the scanners.

All the parties involved -- both the players and the organizations -- get something out of these arrangements, except the public of course, which is largely in the dark about the interests at hand. Players amass privileged information, contacts, and money with each role they add on. The private companies or organizations that sign them on get access to public decision-makers or influencers. And everyone gets deniability: The players can say they were operating under a different role than the one that got them into trouble. The organization can claim it was unaware of the tangle of roles the player actually held, argue he wasn't bound to the same rules that a full-time federal employee or registered lobbyist would be, or suggest that the connection between the player and organization was really a loose one that didn't have much of an impact.

There are echoes of this in the Williams' affair. Williams got more money and valuable exposure to two very different audiences by appearing on both Fox and NPR, which is handy the next time he puts on his author hat and needs to sell a book. A conservative group would be more likely to sign up a liberal centrist like Williams to speak at an event if it can say he appears on The O'Reilly Factor. NPR and Fox face accusations of ideological bias, and having a voice like Williams appearing in both venues serves as cover for them both. Fox can say it has a liberal in the mix; NPR can show that it isn't rigid enough to insist that its talent stay off Fox's air.

Who loses? Listeners and viewers who are left asking themselves, in effect, "Will The Real Juan Williams Please Stand Up?" After describing First Lady Michelle Obama last year as having "... this Stokely Carmichael-in-a-designer-dress going... ," NPR's ombudsman said that "Williams tends to speak one way on NPR and another on Fox [and] it appears people don't understand that he has two different roles." Back then NPR host Scott Simon strongly defended Williams. But after seeing the offending segment, he said, "What can I say? That's not the Juan Williams who is on our show."

Viewers didn't understand because ambiguity was a built-in feature of Williams' arrangement. During the "Stokely Carmichael" controversy, the ombudsman noted that "NPR rarely identifies [Williams] as Fox News contributor." At that point, NPR asked that Fox remove his NPR identification whenever he is on Bill O'Reilly's program. NPR had already changed Williams' status a year earlier from "senior correspondent" to "news analyst" and "independent contractor." (Confused yet?) To anyone in the media, these status changes are readily understandable -- Williams is now a pundit, offering opinions to a variety of news outlets. But these are distinctions that would be easily lost on an average listener or viewer.

All this ambiguity offers deniability to those in charge and the players themselves when things go wrong. Note that NPR was quick to point out that Williams was a "contractor" -- signaling to listeners that he wasn't really one of "us" -- and that NPR doesn't have editorial control over what a contractor says on someone else's air.

So for years, Williams has been performing a delicate dance with two competing standards. But with his comment about people in "Muslim garb" who make him "nervous" on a plane, the music came to an abrupt stop. He's now lost one of his business cards, but gained a reported multi-year, multimillion dollar deal with Fox, and perhaps superstar status on the conservative "rubber chicken" lecture circuit as well. Not a bad way to get fired. For the shadow elite, failure is just a brief stop before the next opportunity comes along.